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British Navy Admiral Remembers INS Viraat, World's Oldest Warship, And How It Made 1982 Falkland War Victory Possible

“Lose (HMS) Invincible and the operation is severely jeopardized; lose Hermes and the operation is over”

06/03/2017 8:17 PM IST | Updated 06/03/2017 10:02 PM IST
Kamal Kishore / Reuters
Indian Navy personnel stand on aircraft carrier Viraat, anchored at sea in Visakhapatnam, February 12, 2006.

Indian Navy's aircraft carrier INS Viraat, the world's oldest warship in active service retired after having done 57 years of active duty. She was formerly the Royal British Navy's HMS Hermes, commissioned in 1959.

Rarely has any warship been in active service for so long.

What makes INS Viraat so special?

Referring to role played by HMS Hermes in the 1982 Falkland War, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff of the Royal British Navy Admiral Sir Philip Jones said, "As the Task Group Commander, Admiral Woodward himself remarked, 'Lose (HMS) Invincible and the operation is severely jeopardized; lose Hermes and the operation is over.' "

Jones was responding to a series of questions by HuffPost India, via email in light of INS Viraat's retirement.

The construction of HMS Hermes started in 1944 as World War II entered its final stages. With the war in the Atlantic ending after Nazi Germany's capitulation in 1945, the construction was halted. She was eventually commissioned into the Royal British Navy in 1959. Back from Falklands, the ship awaited decommissioning. Fortunately for her, India was looking to replace its then aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. After a brief refit, she was inducted into the Indian Navy in 1987 as INS Viraat.

HMS Hermes led by the Royal Navy Task Force Group into the 1982 Falkland war. Jones, a Falkland War veteran, was on board the assault ship HMS Fearless. At the time, "few had predicted" the Falklands War, he said.

"The Sea Harriers flying from HMS Hermes proved vital in providing cover to HMS Fearless and the other amphibious ships during the landings," he added. "We were in maintenance after a training deployment when news of the invasion broke; within hours we were loading stores and embarking Royal Marines. We sailed four days later and within weeks, we were under fierce air attack."

Indian Navy

Contradicting those who feel that aircraft carriers have lost their utility, Jones said, the aircraft carrier remains the "hallmark of great maritime powers."

"The Royal Navy and the Indian Navy are currently in the midst of a process of investment and renewal, the centrepiece of which is a new generation of large aircraft carriers -- this is one of the most complex undertakings for any military-industrial nation," Jones said. "I can think of navies which have tried only to walk away from the challenge because it's too difficult; the fact that India and the UK have succeed is an achievement of which we can be proud. It is our expectation that a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier will regularly deploy to the Middle East and Indian Ocean, and I hope there will be opportunities for more exercises between our navies."

It is our expectation that a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier will regularly deploy to the Middle East and Indian Ocean, and I hope there will be opportunities for more exercises between our navies.

Asked whether the Royal British Navy will want to preserve INS Viraat if it were to be sold off as scrap like its predecessor INS Vikrant (formerly HMS Hercules of the Royal British Navy), Jones said, "Warships are very difficult and expensive to maintain as museums."

"In the end, it did not prove possible to come up with a viable and sustainable plan to preserve any of the three Invincible Class carriers we have recently decommissioned, and they were smaller than Viraat and Vikrant," Jones said. "I consider the Royal Navy lucky to have HMS Victory – the oldest commissioned warship in the world – as our flagship, in Portsmouth."

Kamal Kishore / Reuters
INS Viraat

Jones added that last year, HMS Caroline, the last surviving warship from the Battle of Jutland was opened to the public in Belfast, and this year the British Navy "will also celebrate the 200th anniversary of HMS Trincomalee, built in Bombay in 1817 and still afloat as a museum in Hartlepool today."

Closer to home, the Andhra Pradesh government has evinced interest in turning INS Viraat into a museum. The Ministry of Defence is yet to decide on this; turning Viraat into a museum would cost around Rs 1,000 crore.

Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba today said that INS Viraat would be sold if no buyer is found within the next four months.

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